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    By Josh Moss
    josh@louisville.com

    Photos by John Nation

    For more than three decades, Louisville has permitted properly licensed establishments to sell alcohol until 4:00 in the morning, when bars in cities such as Lexington, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Nashville and Los Angeles have stopped serving. Though this closing time produces problems from time to time, most Louisvillians are so used to the curfew that it has become an accepted part of our town’s life — and nightlife. With staff photographer John Nation, I recently sized up the early-morning scene from 2 a.m., when many cities have already gone to bed, until the local last call just before 4 a.m.

    2:17 a.m., Sunday

    The DJ has cranked up the volume to a floor-rattling level and has just won over the mob. He got close a couple times earlier in the night with Kid Rock and AC/DC and this weird mash-up combining Nine Inch Nails, rapper 50 Cent and the Beatles, but now, more than an hour before last call inside Angel’s Rock Bar at Fourth Street Live, the shrieks register louder than they have all night. “We ready to take it up a notch?” the DJ shouts into the microphone to nobody in particular. As the speakers spew out the first few chords of Def Leppard’s familiar ’80s rock anthem “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” everybody in the thick crowd, which has leveled off after growing for much of the night, lifts a plastic beer cup and screams.

    Young women wearing clear, strapless high heels and what can only be described as lingerie balance trays that carry liquor-filled test tubes. A female bartender in fishnet stockings and black boots stands on the bar, which is planted in the center of the room, and pours a vase of water over her body. It’s not sugar, but it’ll do. Then, for good measure, she peels off her saturated T-shirt — revealing a lacy black bra — and rings it out, dripping more water onto her chest. The colorful, flashing lights make her skin shine.

    On a wall near the DJ booth, a projector illuminates a big screen with scenes from Rob Zombie’s film

    The Devil’s Rejects

    . The DJ himself is shirtless, with tattoos on his arms, headphones around his neck and short, gelled hair that flares up in front like a wave about to crest. You can’t quite trust his smile because he seems a bit too eager to rip back-to-back Jack Daniel’s shots, unbutton his jeans and dance around in his boxer shorts.

    He watches as a woman in her 30s — though that guess could be way off because it’s impossible to estimate age in such a dim atmosphere — emerges from a group of bodies and climbs atop a wobbly table. She stuffs her clutch purse and keys into the back of her jeans, and the surface rocks back and forth as she moves from side to side. “I’m hot,” she sings, “sticky, sweeeeet!” A large worker, who has spent most of his night collecting empty cups, tries to stabilize her makeshift dance floor, but eventually the woman falls off anyway and he catches her. “This happens every time,” he says.

    Not long after “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” the DJ selects a rocker by Rage Against the Machine. During the /files/storyimages/of the song, the lead singer cries “(Expletive) you, I won’t do what you tell me!” over and over again. With the DJ’s encouragement, most people raise their middle fingers as high as they can. Those who don’t are in the minority.

    Such wee-hours carousing distinguishes Louisville from other cities. Fifty-three of Kentucky’s 120 counties are dry, so it’s not as if

    Fourth Street Lives

    are sprouting up across the state. Actually, Kentucky state statutes only permit alcohol sales until midnight, so establishments operating past then must obtain a special license. “To our knowledge,” Kentucky Alcohol Beverage Control analyst Virginia Davis says, “we’re aware of two local ordinances that allow alcohol sales until 4 a.m.: Jefferson County and the city of Hillview in Bullitt County.” That puts Louisville in the same league as cities such as New York, Miami, New Orleans and Las Vegas, which permit bars to sell alcohol until 4 a.m. or later. (In New Orleans and Las Vegas, the booze flows 24 hours a day.)

    Of the 1,516 Louisville Metro locations licensed to sell alcohol — liquor stores, private clubs, hotels, restaurants and other establishments, including bars — 501, or about 33 percent, can sell until 4 a.m. There are 225 places categorized as a tavern, bar or nightclub, and 183, or about 81 percent, can serve until 4 a.m. No cap restricts the number of places permitted to stay open and sell alcohol that late. Though many Louisvillians view this closing time as the norm, it hasn’t always been the case.

    A Kentucky Derby-inspired 1974 ordinance nudged the city down a track toward a yearlong 4 a.m. curfew. That ordinance established that alcoholic beverages could be sold “any time between 2 o’clock A.M. on the first Saturday in May of each year through 6 o’clock A.M. on the following Sunday.” This is still the law. On January 14, 1975, the Board of Alderman passed another ordinance on alcohol sales. Among its provisions: legal year-round sale of beer and liquor from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. In a letter addressing the issue, then-Mayor Harvey Sloane acknowledged concerns that such a law could “signal an atmosphere of permissiveness, increasing problems of uncontrolled drinking and contributing to traffic accidents and crime.”

    But this wasn’t enough to prevent him from allowing the ordinance to become law, though he refused to sign, indicating his reservations. “As you may know,” he wrote, “an experiment in longer drinking hours was conducted last May during the Derby week/files/storyimages/in Louisville, when liquor was allowed to be sold all night. Police officers who have worked during previous Derby weekends said the longer hours did not appear to exacerbate problems of law enforcement.”

    Plus, Sloane continued, he was aware of the “benefits that longer drinking hours might provide in our efforts to attract the convention business that is so beneficial to Louisville’s economy.”

    In a recent telephone interview from Washington, D.C., Sloane said, “I don’t really remember it being a big issue. I don’t recall that we got any adverse reports from the police or the public on it.”

    2:25 a.m., the following Sunday

    The Connection’s white-and-black-checkered dance floor is packed. Four shirtless men stand on top of a platform, in a line, and grind to the throbbing techno beat. Another man, who’s a bit hairier and heavier than the others, pulls off his T-shirt and joins them. In a corner, a guy wearing only briefs surveys the action. At the Connection, located on South Floyd Street, it’s as if an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog came to life and started dancing.

    In the theater in the back of the club, a crowd has formed for another LaBoy LeFemme drag show. Onstage, the performers — with names such as Hurricane Summers, Syimone and Terri Vanessa — lip-sync to songs by Kelly Clarkson and Whitney Houston and Stevie Nicks. Newcomers in the audience snap photos with digital cameras. All the dancers earn tips, but it’s clear that Mokha Montrese is the favorite.

    Mokha doesn’t do ballads. Dressed in gold, heeled boots and a sequined top and bottom that make those most on exhibit at Angel’s Rock Bar look fully clothed, Mokha works the stage. In no time, a line forms at either end. “Do you want to be lovers tonight?” she mouths along to the music. “Keep up this masquerade.” As Mokha starts collecting singles from her fans, one man, who has set his Budweiser bottle on the stage, refuses to fork over the dollar he’s flaunting. This doesn’t last long. By song’s end, with a wad of cash already in hand, Mokha lifts her top and shows the man what he wants to see. Satisfied, he gives up the money.

    2:32 a.m., the previous Saturday

    John Baxter and the Bottomfeeders have recently finished their set of mostly cover songs inside Molly Malone’s. The band plays at various bars around town and Baxter, the lead singer and acoustic guitarist, has noticed a late-night trend. “People are definitely drunker as the night wears on,” he says, not too long after he and his bandmates down a complimentary shot of whiskey. “They pretty much eat up anything you play.”

    The men at Molly Malone’s prowl in prides, like lions, and from afar spy the antelopes, wearing tight jeans and even tighter tops. Though most of the lions appear bashful, some possess the courage to swoop in for the kill. Only in this jungle, the antelope has the upper hand and the power to shoo the lion away with his head down, whimpering.

    As the band packs up its equipment and the rap music begins to play from the speakers, patrons hang out in groups of four or five. Those circles eventually converge, forming one drunken mass that’s almost impossible to navigate. At this hour, the girl-to-guy ratio at Molly Malone’s is about one to 20, and that’s probably being conservative. And though Baxter is pleased with his band’s performance, the crowd, sadly, seems to prefer the sex jam by R&B crooner Ginuwine that is blasting after the Bottomfeeders’ set.

    Molly Malone’s is one of the many spots that remain open until 4 a.m. on the bar-saturated stretch of Baxter Avenue’s 900 block, which includes Flanagan’s Ale House, O’Shea’s, Outlook Inn, Wick’s and Willy’s. This section occupies part of Metro Councilman Tom Owen’s district. “In the last two and a half years, there have been times when the issue of 4 a.m. closing was very, very much on my front burner. I haven’t had a complaint in some months,” he says. “The complaints were usually in response to issues in adjacent, residential neighborhoods where there were problems.”

    According to Bill Schreck, director of the city’s Department of Codes and Regulations, the problems reported to him range from noisy college students walking to their cars to noisy college students urinating in bushes. “A lot of the expressions that we get from people within the neighborhoods are not what actually occurs at the premise itself,” says Schreck, who has had the same job since 1990. “It’s after people leave. They park two or three blocks away, and they’re walking to their car and they’re loud in the neighborhoods. But we really don’t get a lot of complaints.”

    Owen, for his part, believes 4 a.m. is excessive, though he’s quick to point out that he’s in no hurry to pile more regulations on top of the recently passed smoking ban. “Four in the morning seems awfully close to sunrise to me. I think partying ought to be earlier in the evening,” Owen says. “I’ve always thought that over time, if we ever did go back to an earlier closing time, that probably younger people would start going out at 10:30 p.m., rather than at 11:30 p.m. or, in some cases, midnight.”

    But would bar-hoppers drink less and tone down their behavior during earlier hours? Schreck isn’t so sure. “To change (the curfew) back may actually create some opposition,” he says. “But I have heard statements that if you reduced it from 4 a.m. to 2 a.m. they’d just start drinking earlier — the same amount of alcohol would be consumed.”

    Police statistics from July 1, 2007, through Dec. 31, 2007, show that the number of alcohol-related arrests went up as the nights got
    later. During this period, five arrests involving alcohol intoxication happened between the hours of midnight and 1 a.m., seven between the hours of 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. and nine between the hours of 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. From 3 a.m. to

    4 a.m. there were 17 arrests, and from 4 a.m. to 5 a.m. there were 17 more.

    According to Dr. Mary Nan Mallory — vice chief of staff at University Hospital, who, for the past 15 years, has worked the night shift about four times a month — the 4 a.m. closing time doesn’t directly impact the emergency room. “In our emergency department, it is not our experience that we see a lot of drunk people coming in at 4:30 in the morning because the bars just closed,” she says. “I think that may be a misconception.

    “A 4 a.m. closing time changes the way people run their daily clock, but I’m not sure that it means people drink more, drink longer or drink in a more deadly fashion than if the bars closed at 2 a.m. If people are going to be prone to drinking a lot in the night before they get ready to leave, they’re going to do it no matter what time you close the bars.”

    Assistant Chief Tim Emington spoke for the Louisville Metro police department when questions were posed for this story. He says police have no data that supports a 2 a.m. closing time over the city’s current curfew, and that the department would only take a position against later hours if that data existed. “It’s just the environment that we operate in,” he says. “Back in (the mid-’70s), when I was first on the street, I remember not all bars had 4 a.m. licenses. It was fairly uncommon for somebody to stay open until four o’clock. But throughout the years it has become more and more common.”

    2:42 a.m., Saturday

    All the regulars have filed into the Germantown hot spot the Nachbar, which blends in with the neighborhood’s shotgun houses. Unlike the deafening music at, say, Angel’s Rock Bar, a jukebox — with Bob Dylan and Radiohead and the White Stripes — is supplying the tunes at a laid-back volume that still makes carrying a conversation a possibility. People — the girl-to-guy ratio is

    almost

    equal but, let’s be honest, males compose the majority almost everywhere — are crammed wall to wall in the narrow space, but the crowd is never overwhelming to the point that you can’t squeeze through.

    “The whole atmosphere is warm,” says Anne Wasiljew, whose boyfriend’s house is right next door. “The Nachbar, it’s a small bar, but it’s always crowded and most of the time I know a lot of people. I don’t think you can really compare Fourth Street with this kind of bar.”

    She adds, “I think it’s mostly the Highlands and Germantown crew that goes (here). Germantown is becoming kind of like the new Highlands. It’s hip to live in Germantown because it’s a little cheaper than the Highlands.”

    The drink of choice is a selection from the extensive beer list, which features plenty of brews from Germany and Belgium. A single pool table rests in the back of the narrow space, and unlike Fourth Street Live, T-shirts are a typical wardrobe choice. As the clock ticks closer and closer to 3 a.m., people are not leaving. “It gets hard to get people out (the door),” bartender Daniel Duncan says. “At 3:30 a.m., people are still showing up.”

    Though it’s often described as a “hipster bar,” Duncan doesn’t like the label. “This bar,” he says, “you come here at any time of the day and you’re going to have a different crowd.” But no matter what you call it, many consider it a welcome, lower-key alternative. “Most people I know don’t consider Fourth Street Live a fun night out,” says Shelly Hernandez, a day manager, server and bartender at Seviche, who prefers the Nachbar, the Pink Door, Cahoots, Outlook Inn or the Pour Haus. “I think Fourth Street Live represents the commercialized nightlife at 4 a.m., but it doesn’t represent what the longtime locals are doing.”

    Less than a mile away at the Pour Haus, another popular Germantown location, the crowd has thinned since earlier in the night. A live band went on at about 10 p.m., but it’s almost 3 a.m. now and the door to get into the back room with the small stage is locked. Those who remain have gathered in the front, taking their karaoke seriously.

    Like the Nachbar, the Pour Haus emits a relaxed feel, especially when the woman running karaoke sings an Alicia Keys ballad. Four guys in flannel shirts sit in a nearby booth and sip cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. At a round table, a man older than most of the other patrons shares a pitcher of beer with a female friend. His shirt is unbuttoned and his black chest hair and beer gut are visible. A group in the next room have been shooting pool for a couple hours. But no matter where you go, the late-night drinking has destroyed at least

    somebody’s

    inhibitions.

    A college-aged woman now has the microphone and is belting out Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down.” About halfway through the song, her lyrics trigger the attention of a man with a bandanna on his head and gold-rimmed sunglasses hiding his eyes. He leaves the room with pool tables and approaches as she digs deep and wails, “I can’t stop these tears from fallin’ from my eyes.” The guy collapses on all fours, chest up, and starts thrusting his pelvis up and down. She stands over him. He thrusts again.

    3:38 a.m., the previous Saturday

    “Don’t waste good booze. Drink it up, hit the road,” says Chris Lesko, who has long, graying blond hair and has been bartending at the Back Door — on the side of Mid City Mall — for “too long.” A few people head to the front door with pool cues in cases, but most remain in their booths to finish off their drinks. One young guy in a leather jacket orders three shots of Jagermeister before closing his tab. Another man with silver hair pulled back into a ponytail nurses what’s left of his mixed drink. Lesko’s co-worker, who has a scraggy white beard, wipes the bar with a wet towel.

    “Three a.m. to 4 a.m. is real busy for us because we get a lot of service people in here. We get a lot of people from the Bristol and Avalon and all the places that aren’t open quite as late as us,” manager Carrie Martin says. “We have very dedicated regulars.”

    But at a quarter ,til four, whether you’re a regular or not, Lesko becomes impatient. “It’s time to go, people,” he says. “We’ll call you a cab if you need one.”

    4:00 a.m., Saturday

    Although the Back Door has already kicked everybody out, the Highlands Taproom, a five-minute walk away on Bardstown Road, still has a small gathering of mostly employees. Derrick Manley, the “entertainment coordinator,” has been running karaoke all night. “I keep the show going as long as I can,” he says. “Once they’re ripped, they start enjoying it.”

    The final song of the night is Manley’s, and when he finishes he lets the stragglers know that it’s time to go. “Now get the (expletive) out,” he yells into the microphone. Most leave with no problem. However, one man with unkempt hair, who has clearly suffered through one too many shots of Jameson and who claims to be a performer in a local theatrical production, stumbles to the street. He’s having trouble speaking as he paces in the cold night air, so drunk that he has forgotten his name. He needs a cab to take him home, if he could just remember where that is.

    Author Josh Moss welcomes your comments and opinions. To contribute feedback and foster discussion on the story, click the link below and we'll post your comments. All commentary is screened for appropriate language.

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